Why does Oscar hate SF?

[This essay originally appeared on the SFScope website in February of 2009. It’s a little out of date but, sadly, still true: no science fiction movie has ever won a Best Picture Oscar.  – Sarah Stegall]

In any list of movies that have had a major cultural impact, both at home and abroad, several movies have to be included: Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Dark Knight, The Wizard of Oz, and Blade Runner. Since the earliest days of Hollywood, fantasy and science fiction have been a staple of studio production, and these movies often bring in more money than any others; Star Wars held the top money-maker spot for twenty years, and even today still holds firmly to second place. Two of the three all-time most profitable motion pictures are genre movies: Star Wars and The Dark Knight. No other art form, not even television, can produce the big-screen wonders that fire the imagination and bring in crowds on a repeat basis. Blockbusters like The Dark Knight have saved studios languishing in the red after more “literary” and respected movies have failed repeatedly at the box office. Hollywood knows how to make money: when in doubt, make a genre movie.

And yet, this form of movie-making is repeatedly snubbed at awards time. Hollywood, in what must be some weird form of self-loathing, consistently shuts out its most profitable and entertaining productions from the awards that are supposed to recognize the best of the best. It’s a long-standing neurosis, which Hollywood has only once overcome, when it gave a Best Picture Oscar to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Yes, that is one Best Picture Oscar in 81 years. One. And I’m willing to bet that mostly had to do with the fact that it was an adaptation of a “serious” literary work by a world famous writer.

This neurosis goes back to the origin of the Academy Awards. The first motion picture of genre origins nominated for a Best Picture Oscar was Skippy, which was nominated in 1930 but lost out to Cimarron. Skippy was based on an American comic strip drawn by Percy Crosby that ran from 1923 to 1945. The strip was enormously popular, and was adapted into a novel, a radio show, and was even spun off into merchandising, such as the Skippy brand of peanut butter still sold today. It was an early influence on Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts. Even after the strip ended publication and its creator died, it was considered a classic; there’s even an official Skippy website. Yet despite all of Skippy‘s popularity, it was skipped over at the awards ceremony. Perhaps Hollywood was embarrassed to honor a comic strip, which after all cannot possibly be considered on a par with Edna Ferber’s Western novel, yes?

It was another seven years before Hollywood would nominate another genre movie for Best Picture. Once again, it chose a movie based on an adaptation from another medium, in this case an adaptation of James Hilton’s fantasy novel Lost Horizon. Although it was a big budget production directed by Frank Capra, with major stars Ronald Coleman and Jane Wyatt, it too was passed over by Hollywood, which gave that year’s Best Picture award to biopic The Life of Emile Zola. Yeah, there’s a classic which has stood the test of time.

In 1939, an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy The Wizard of Oz took up permanent residence in American popular culture. How many quotable lines come from that movie? “We’re not in Kansas anymore”, or “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too” and “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” are cultural catch phrases that have entered the public memory, even among those who haven’t seen the movie. Since it is run at least once a year on television, The Wizard of Oz has become as much a part of our cultural education as Sesame Street. Some critics call it the most beloved American film of all time. It should have been a lock for Best Picture, but it had the misfortune to be up against Gone with the Wind, which took the 1939 Best Picture. Two classics, highly quotable, with great scores and special effects; must have been a headache voting for Best Picture that year.

War and film noir dominated most of the late Thirties and early Forties, and it was not until 1948 that a picture was nominated for Best Picture that might be considered fantasy. The Red Shoes, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a pair of magical red ballet slippers, was adapted into a morality play emphasizing greed, ambition, and love rather than the “magical” elements. Instead of the red shoes controlling their wearer through supernatural means, they become a symbol of the wearer’s choice between a career on the stage or a chance at love. The fairy tale aspects are thus stripped from the story, so it might be argued that The Red Shoes is not really a genre tale at all. In any case, it lost out to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet that year.

It was a long time before another genre film was even nominated for Best Picture. In 1964, Stanley Kubrick’s futuristic black comedy Dr. Strangelove was set in a near-future America threatened by Soviet nuclear capability. It was another adaptation from a novel, this time Red Alert by Terry Southern. It is primarily a satire on the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction”, then pursued by American policy. It has received a 100% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is considered one of the best films of all time by such critics as Roger Ebert. The film was showered with awards: WGA awards, a Hugo award, and Kubrick himself won two awards for Best Director. Still, the Academy chose to honor instead Jack Warner’s emasculation of G.B. Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, and gave the Oscar to My Fair Lady.

From black comedy to children’s books: the 1967 film Doctor Doolittle was nominated for Best Picture. Based on the series of children’s fantasy books by Hugh Lofting, it has been called a “colossal dud” by film historian Leonard Maltin and nearly bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox. To gain an Oscar nomination, Twentieth Century Fox mounted an unprecedented campaign, in which Academy members were wined and dined. An utterly forgettable film, it lost out to In the Heat of the Night, a more socially aware movie about race relations. On this one, I give the Academy a pass.

Stanley Kubrick found another of his films nominated in 1971. A Clockwork Orange, based on the dystopian Anthony Burgess novel, was set in a near-future Britain. An ultraviolent youth, Alex, is “reprogrammed” by the government to turn him into a nonviolent citizen. The film was an innovative piece of future shock, with an invented language all its own and startling imagery. Intense scenes of rape and violence earned it an “X” rating. The Academy went with the equally violent but more socially acceptable The French Connection that year. A Clockwork Orange was the last X-rated film ever to be nominated for an Oscar. The Sixties were over, man.

If horror movies can be considered a sub-genre of fantasy, then our next Best Picture contender in that category would be 1973’s The Exorcist, about a young woman possessed by the devil. The first horror film ever nominated for an Oscar, it was adapted from the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty. One of the most profitable horror films of all time, it was nominated for ten Academy Awards but lost Best Picture to The Sting.

It wasn’t until 1977 that a full-bore, no-holds-barred, unabashed space opera was nominated for Best Picture. Star Wars was nominated against The Goodbye Girl, Julia, and The Turning Point. Despite being the all-time highest grossing film for twenty years, founding an entire industry in special effects, and entering the community consciousness to an extent never enjoyed by any other genre film, it lost out to… Annie Hall. Yes, another neurotic Woody Allen film about New Yorkers defeated the Empire which spawned two sequels, three prequels, innumerable novels, boosted the career of Harrison Ford into high orbit, launched a whole sub-genre of television knock-offs, and created legions of fans. Great foresight, Hollywood.

Not content with snubbing George Lucas’s greatest work, the Academy set him up for disappointment again, when it nominated Raiders of the Lost Ark (based on a story he wrote in 1973) for Best Picture in 1981. Directed by genre master Steven Spielberg, the action-adventure film made more money than China that year, won five Academy Awards in “technical” and artistic categories, but garnered no nominations for acting. Like Star Wars, it was a movie that took full advantage of all the special effects and blockbuster techniques that Hollywood had to offer, showing to advantage best in theaters, catering to the big-movie sound that Star Wars had pioneered, wowing audiences with non-stop action. Nevertheless, this groundbreaking film lost Best Picture honors to Chariots of Fire, a film about the 1924 Summer Olympics best remembered for its score.

Raiders director Steven Spielberg was disappointed again the very next year, as E.T.: The Extraterrestrial was nominated for Best Picture in 1982. A story aimed at children, with a cuddly alien and inspiring musical score, it became one of the most enduring and beloved films of the twentieth century. Critics consider it to be a timeless story extolling friendship and trust, and Rotten Tomatoes hailed it as the best science fiction film ever made. It is so popular that when the Academy awarded the Oscar to Richard Attenborough for his movie, Ghandi, Attenborough himself chastised the Academy in his acceptance speech: “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” More than 25 years later, most viewers would agree: the Academy blew this one big time.

Even if one could argue that Hollywood was avoiding giving the Oscar to blockbusters, that argument would fall apart when considering the next genre film to win a nomination: Ghost. A small romantic fantasy starring Patrick Swayze as a ghost who is trying to contact his fiancée, this 1990 film is notable for its erotic pottery scene and the performance of Whoopi Goldberg as a medium, which won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The film came close to Best Picture, winning an award for Best Original Screenplay, but lost the top honors to Kevin Costner’s revisionist western, Dances with Wolves.

1991 brought a new milestone for the Academy: the first nomination of an animated feature for Best Picture. Beauty and the Beast, based on a fairy tale adapted into a novel by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, was a lavish and stunning tour de force of animation, incorporating top notch musical numbers, well-known actors for the voice roles, and dance sequences that call for the full display of a movie theater screen to appreciate. It is an undoubted fantasy, with the entire plot dependent upon a witch’s spell which changes an ordinary prince into a beast. The movie made box office records for an animated feature, garnered critical acclaim from all corners, and raised the bar of family entertainment for a generation. But it was a cartoon, not a live-action film, and the Academy gave the Oscar to a slasher movie, Silence of the Lambs. So adamant was the Academy’s resistance to fantasy animation that it created a whole new category, Best Animated Feature Film, to ensure that never again would a mere cartoon be competing for top honors against “real” movies. This effectively ghettoized all future animation films, ensuring that they would never sully the pristine realm of art again.

Not until 1999 was another genre picture nominated (I’m excluding 1995’s Apollo 13, which—although involving space travel—was a non-fiction piece). It was the first year two genre pictures were nominated, both of them “horror” or dark fantasy movies. The Green Mile is based on the Stephen King horror novel of the same name, about a giant African-American man who has the power to heal people by touching them. The Sixth Sense was writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s first really big movie, about a troubled boy who could see dead people. Both movies lost top honors to American Beauty, a widely acclaimed film I walked out of in disgust.

The first 21st century genre film to be nominated for Best Picture was Peter Jackson’s masterful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved fantasy classic, The Lord of the Rings. Filming the book as a trilogy, the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, was nominated for Best Picture in 2001, but lost out to A Beautiful Mind. The following year, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers made the short list for Best Picture, but was passed over for Chicago. But in 2003, the last film of the trilogy, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, swept the Oscars, winning all eleven awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture. It thus became the first (and to date, only) genre movie to win Best Picture from the Academy.

This year, the Academy has finally nominated another genre film: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name. The story is about a man who is born old and grows younger with every passing day. This same idea was elaborated upon by T.H. White in his classic “The Once and Future King”, in which Merlin is born old and lives backwards. Critical reception has been mixed; Variety called it “richly satisfying” but the Washington Post accused it of self-importance. Competing against films like Frost/Nixon, Milk, and popular and critical darling Slumdog Millionaire, I don’t rate its chances of an Oscar statue very high.

Having created a new category for animated movies, there will be no more Best Pictures handed out to cartoons. Instead, last year’s fabulous WALL-E, about a robot stranded on Earth when the humans leave, has been nominated by the Academy for Best Animated Feature film, a signal honor, to be sure, but not with the cachet of an unconditional Best Picture.

Of course, those are only the movies that got nominated. How about early classics such as Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film, Metropolis, a futuristic dystopian film combining social criticism with German Expressionist special effects. Admired even today, it set the tone for subsequent genre films like Frankenstein (the 1931 version). Despite multiple remakes, the 1933 King Kong from RKO Pictures is a classic of American cinema whose iconic image of the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building holds up even against today’s ultrasophisticated CGI. The American Film Institute considers it one of the top ten fantasy films of all time, yet it was completely ignored by the Academy.

Films which, although earning places in film history, have never even been nominated for a Best Picture award include Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Blade Runner (1982), Alien (1979), the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Fahrenheit 451 (1966). In the last quarter of the 20th century, inspired by the advances in technology that made it possible to show things onscreen that did not exist in real life, we got thoughtful movies like Jurassic Park (1993) and Gattaca (1997) that combined SF with commentary on the use of science while delivering all the widescreen eye candy audiences expected. Movies like The Matrix (1999) and Total Recall (1990) explored the interface of computers and human society, or the ability of sophisticated programs to imitate reality. In the 2000s, these themes were elaborated upon with movies like A.I. (2001) and Minority Report (2002). Even classic Earth-invasion themes were revived with big-budget remakes of War of the Worlds (2005) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). Dystopia made a comeback with Children of Men (2006) while fantasy movies gained even more audience with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

These were not the B-movie workhorses of the 1950s and 1960s, but big-budget movies with world-class directors and actors, that garnered critical acclaim on all fronts and sold millions of tickets. Yet not one of them gained so much as a single nomination from the Academy. Hollywood sets the global standard for science fiction and fantasy films, for animated films, for blockbuster special-effects wizardry that blows our socks off. Many of its neglected masterpieces will endure as long as cinema does. Yet in 465 Best Picture nominations over 81 years, Hollywood has awarded only one Best Picture Oscar to a genre film. What is wrong with these people?

At times it seems as if Hollywood were actually ashamed of its big-screen blockbusters. I think it’s suffering from a massive inferiority complex. Much of it is earned — how many great novels and stories have been butchered by ham-handed rewrites? How many dull, formulaic B-movies has the dream machine pumped out over the last 100 years? Even so, Hollywood movies surpass any other visual art form when it comes to taking us to another world, to places that do not and cannot exist, to the embodiments of imaginary things and people and milieus no other art form can duplicate. Science fiction is in the film industry’s DNA: arguably the first science fiction film is the 107-year-old Georges Melies film, A Trip to the Moon (1902).

The Academy, representing as it does the broadest cross-section of that film industry, is the most reliable sounding board for the zeitgeist of Hollywood. If it chooses, year after year, to ignore quality films based on speculative themes, even when they generate critical recognition and big box office grosses, there is surely a reason. Whether it fears to be taken too lightly by critics and snobs, fears another crackdown on its “morals” by a latter day Hays Code, or because lingering ignorance and prejudice characterize SF as kiddie fare, the industry continues to disrespect a genre which it should be honoring.

And that’s too bad, because besides the disconnect between their art and their “artistic sensibilities”, the people who ignore SF every year at awards time are cutting their own throats. Look at box office revenue for 2006: top grosses were:
Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith grossed $380 million, but received only one Oscar nomination;
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire collected $288 million but only one nomination;
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe collected $288 million, and a lousy three Oscar nominations;
War of the Worlds, which netted $234 million, only garnered three nominations.
King Kong made $218 million, but was shut out completely.

None of these received Best Picture nominations.

This is not to say that these movies should be honored only for their box office performances. Some blockbusters are really just upgraded B-movies that, while entertaining, don’t carry a lot of intellectual cachet. That’s fine, not every movie has to be thought-provoking. But when the Academy overlooks movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner, it shows a lack of understanding not only of its own debt to this genre, but of its audience. They may give all the Oscars they want to the likes of Crash and American Beauty, but what keeps the audience coming back, and the cash rolling in, are movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight.

Hollywood just doesn’t get that.